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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Waiting on a Train review

A few months ago, I was able to read Waiting on a Train by James McCommons, and I was thoroughly impressed with the knowledge that the author had on train travel. There were three topics that piqued my interest the most--nationalization, train stations being built or restored but abandoned by Amtrak, and Norfolk Southern's interest in passenger service.

Nationalization
Page 45 cited some people who have suggested nationalizing dispatching while others advocated taking over the infrastructure and charging railroads to use the tracks.

On this issue, I would be in favor of a government-controlled rail station authority to handle train stations with multiple operators. Most U.S. airports are already operated this way--with government entities or government-created airport authorities. Recently, the California High Speed Rail Authority and the L.A. County MTA announced that they will put up $30 million to buy Union Station from a private company that currently owns it. Those two entities should create a rail station/transportation authority, the first in the nation, so it can handle local and regional transit and Metrolink. Also, with the potential of six intercity rail operators--Amtrak, DesertXpress, Z Train, X Train, Desert Lightning and Virgin Trains--stopping at the station, the authority would maintain the station, leaving the rail companies to only worry about their passengers.

All that work for nothing
Mineola, TX lobbied Amtrak for a stop since it had 100,000 people, colleges, and was near to Tyler. The station opened in April 1996, but five months later, the Downs administration had targeted the Texas Eagle for elimination. Fortunately, a group of mayors was able to save the route the following year with help from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (175). Meridian, MS's Union Station was being renovated when Crescent service was reduced to triweely status south of Atlanta. A coalition of mayors along the affected portions of the route got Senator Trent Lott to remind Downs that Amtrak was important to small communities. Even though the Amtrak president was dismissive, the Crescent reverted back to daily service in May 1997 (246-47).

These two stories tend to back up some Amtrak critics who have contended that the national carrier leaves smaller communities high and dry. Usually, the scenario involves these towns building new station or restoring old ones so Amtrak can stop there while at other times several towns will get a state to establish a new route. The usual end result is that during a crisis, the carrier will cite disagreements with the state, or as in the examples listed above, an idiotic marketing strategy like the Mercer Plan.

Norfolk Southern's passenger strategy
Craig Lewis did an analysis of the Class I railroad running passenger trains, over the objections of the operating department. Lewis told them that he would rather have the host running the trains rather than someone else have total control on its property. While he saw operation as "a business opportunity," Lewis set two conditions: 1) NS wouldn't market the service or depend on the farebox for revenues and 2) the Class I would run the trains while the passenger entity like a state would pay for the infrastructure to accommodate the trains (221).

Hypothetically, this applies to both commuter and intercity rail. When it comes to the latter, NS would bid for an existing route. If the route is like the Crescent, then the host railroad could talk to a transit agency or an international carrier and contract the route out to them. The contracted carrier would then handle all duties--station agents, conductors/crew chief, promoting the route (this part would also apply to commuter agencies). If the route in question is more like the Lake Shore Limited, then the rail consortium idea kicks in.

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